05/08/2006 07:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

My Name is Patrick and I Am a Drug Addict

My name is Patrick, and I am a Drug Addict

It is not easy to stand up before a roomful of people in a church basement and utter these words, even knowing that the vows of confidentiality will protect you in such a gathering.

Patrick had to say these words in a public press conference that would be heard and read by hundreds of millions. That is what bravery is all about.

He will be saying these words every night for months and years, maybe for the rest of his life.

The worldwide media had a field day with Kennedy's so very public anguish. Perhaps what gives the story such power is a kind of schadenfreude effect -- that a member of a powerful, handsome, wealthy family should be brought down by this most common of afflictions.

What we all forget is that this is a truly devastating, sometimes fatal illness, which afflicts hundreds of millions around the globe. More people below the age of 60 die of drug and alcohol addiction (and its consequences) than from heart disease and cancer combined. This is not something to make sport of.

It runs in families, and prevails in certain cultures. The Irish, some say, are particularly susceptible. But no group is immune. Some 20% of young male adults (across all nations, cultures, and religions) will have a serious problem during their lives, and 8% will never recover, destroy their lives, and their families, and linger on to die an early death.

The Kennedys have long believed that addition has a genetic component. Christopher Kennedy, Patrick's cousin, told the Chicago Sun-Times "Patrick Kennedy is "struggling" with a "genetic" disorder that "as a family we will overcome. There is plenty of evidence to show that addiction has a genetic base to it."

Patrick said, "Over my 15 years in public life, I felt a responsibility to speak honestly and openly about the challenges that I have with addiction and depression. I've been fighting this chronic disease since I was a young man and have aggressively and periodically sought treatment so that I can live a full and productive life."

"I struggle every day with this disease, as do millions of Americans."

Kennedy's illness is defined as a "chronic relapsing disease" by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. One of the symptoms of this disease is a series of continuing relapses until a cure finally takes hold. Every recovered drug or alcohol addict goes through what seems to be an endless periods of sobriety and relapse, until they are able to kick their destructive habits. Tens of millions of recovered addicts, who have gone through AA or other 12-Step programs, are a testament that recovery is possible, even if it takes many tries. This is how people get better.

"We look at relapses as an opportunity to focus on the very clear issue that causes it," said Chris Canter of San Francisco's Walden House drug treatment center, which treated Robert Downey Jr.

Christopher Kennedy summed up the feeling of the family, "There is a genetic element to all this. But his good genes are stronger than his bad genes, and he will rebound."

What all professionals agree upon is that a willingness to accept one's problem and get treatment is the major step to recovery. This turmoil may give him the opportunity to play a powerful role model for millions who are similarly afflicted.

Patrick is going to be OK.